“Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” Cormac McCarthy, The Road
There were no other cars but ours on the long, abandoned motorway to Pripyat. The last living souls we’d seen were the last chance saloon keepers and armed guards at the Exclusion Zone Border about 15 miles ago. The pure white snow blanketing the landscape is dotted with triangular red on yellow radiation hazard signs, along with occasional animal tracks. The flat, marshy terrain is oozing with mist, drifting above the fallow fields and over the Red Forest in the near distance. It’s named so after its ancient pines were killed by intense radiation from the burning reactor, turning from lush green into an eternal autumn’s ginger brown. We are making a short stop by an abandoned farm. The roof of the dacha, the main cottage, has partially collapsed. Inside, the floorboards are rotting away, and pale blue paint is flaking off its walls. Beyond it, a pair of wild dogs are savaging the carcass of a dead deer. One of them is staring right at me while gnawing at a bloody femur. In the distance, I can just make the outline of Pripyat’s high rises towering above the treeline. It is a post-apocalyptic landscape I’d previously only encountered in literature or video games – but here I am, standing right in the middle of an entire sub-culture’s ground zero. This where science fiction meets reality, and vision becomes a crumbling, yet tangible truth.
A lot has been written about the apparition of Pripyat : it was once a thriving Soviet town inhabited by workers and scientists working at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Then it was abandoned in the aftermath of the well documented 1986 disaster that polluted the region with deadly radiation. Today, it is another sobering addition to Ukraine’s growing list of dark national monuments. And it’s being reclaimed by nature, along with an ever increasing number of curious visitors, some of which are sadly adding to the decay and destruction the city has suffered since its evacuation.
Where Symbols Shatter
Suddenly, the motorway merges into Lenina Prospekt, a magnificent tree-lined boulevard with weathered high rise apartment blocks on either side. It is the main thoroughfare into the city, cutting the urban area down the middle, and leading to the main square. It is of course named after the revolutionary leader of renown : nearly every Soviet city had a street, square, or monument dedicated to Lenin, but today, Soviet lexicology is rapidly giving way to more modern conventions. Specifically in the Ukraine, socialist lore is fast becoming extinct. Following the Euromaidan protests of 2013 and subsequent legislation that had all Communist symbols outlawed, Ukraine have had tens of thousands of streets and villages renamed, and hundreds of statues and other Soviet symbols removed or destroyed. But since the Exclusion Zone is now forever condemned to an otherworldly Soviet stasis, it is perfectly normal to be able to see the last known statues of Lenin in the Ukraine there, and Lenina Prospekt is still appropriately leading us into the municipal heart of Pripyat.
There’s something fascinating about Soviet urban toponymy and its purposeful marking of urban landscapes with ideological symbolism. Light, Nicolae and Suditu (2001) wrote about how monumental architecture and urban planning was utilised by Socialist regimes to express political power, resonate Communist ideology, and reinforce its functions, values, and ideals. Pripyat was no exception : the purpose-built, model Soviet city was embellished with ample socialist and energy related symbolism. And via its orderly and practical design, it is also a brilliant example of architectural functionalism : What was achieved here, was the transmutation of an entire city into a live-in symbol of high socialism and its marvels, and fatefully, also its failings, as experienced during the terrible events that took place here in the spring of 1986.
Le Corbusier used to be mortified by how slovenly and untidy old cities often became over time : the visual discord, and often unnecessary and defunct accumulation of buildings and styles thoroughly appalled him. But Pripyat, being the direct opposite of what he loathed, would most definitely please the grand master of architecture. There was no accumulation of anarchic slums or dilapidated buildings here, neither the disruptive variance of material and styles of a typical ageing town. Instead, every building and district was predetermined, and perfectly appointed to perform its inherent function. The result was order : an immaculately zoned Modernist town, with clearly discernible industrial, residential and recreation districts and a diverse range of public amenities, harmoniously connecting with one another through tree-lined streets and wide boulevards. Pripyat, by design, contained everything a city needed, and nothing a city didn’t.
All this can be credited to Maria Protsenko, the Chinese born Chief Architect of Pripyat who oversaw the city’s planning and design. Adam Higginbotham reports how despite the prevalence of standardised state regulations for city building, she is known to have utilised the meagre resources available to infuse the city with her own aesthetic interventions. Surprisingly, Protsenko is one of the disaster’s most unsung heroes : she was overseeing the expansion of Pripyat into a much larger city when the explosion happened. She reportedly organised and coordinated the evacuation of its citizens – map in hand, directing the emergency vehicle traffic in and out of the city.
Culture, Sports and everyday life
The first prominent building I see as I enter Pripyat is Energetik, the Palace of Culture. Socialist culture was diffused and reinforced in similar Palaces of Culture across the Soviet Union. The word Energetik is used playfully here, as it means both energy worker and lively. It is a clear reference to the model Soviet city’s immutable ties with the broader concepts of energy and action. As in atomic energy, since the very existence of Pripyat was connected to the Chernobyl NPP. Creative energy, as the theatre, library and cinema facilities at Energetik would suggest. Or athletic energy, suggested by the boxing ring, swimming pool, basketball court and other sports facilities contained. The ideal Soviet citizen was expected to be a well trained and cultured individual, conscious of their destiny, and full of energy that can readily transform into ideologically motivated action, always prepared to deter counter-revolutionary reaction.
Despite the omnipresence of communist propaganda in everyday life, the processes of indoctrination that characterised Soviet society weren’t constantly overbearing. Pripyat seems to have been as vibrant and youthful a place to live and work as anywhere else in the world, in defiance to Western preconceptions about the standard of living in the Soviet Union. There’s evidence that the young population (averaging 26 years of age) might have enjoyed an epicurean lifestyle, with ample sports, culture and entertainment facilities. They even enjoyed disco nights, held at Energetik : One event was aptly named Edison-2, presumably after Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, and one of the fathers of electric power generation – so another definitive reference to energy. But also perhaps evocative of Soviet perceptions of frivolity and hedonism in the USA, especially the disco-fuelled, flamboyant New York scene of the 80s, whose glamour and glitter would have transcended the Iron Curtain at the time.
There’s irony in naming the discotheque of a Soviet town after an American inventor : it is the place where one can let their hair down, be a bit silly, naughty, over the top – and at least for a while, be not serious at all. But there’s also a sense of conformity with the overarching theme of energy in borrowing Edison’s name. Such “alternative” events would most certainly require the approval of the powers that be, and the fact that the Edison-2 disco was contained within the Palace of Culture is a great example of how the boundaries of external cultural influence might have been carefully managed by the state apparatus in early 80s Soviet Union. After all, it was a country already at the threshold of astonishing political and social transformation. Here’s a video documenting the crazy disco nights at Edison-2 :
Behind the Palace of Culture, one crosses the city’s iconic amusement park to reach Sportyvna Street, named after, well, sports. This is where the Avangard central stadium was located, home of the proud FC Stroitel Pripyat, the city’s football club. It literally translates to FC Builder Pripyat, following the convention of many Soviet sports clubs named after an occupation or a piece of machinery. Pripyat’s team competed in Kyiv’s local football league, facing teams named Dinamo, Refrigerator, Torpedo, Avtomobilist (driver), Metallurg (metallurgist) or Radist (Radio Operator). Many of these sports clubs would be established through professional associations – like those among comrades in the armed forces, or among co-workers in a mine or a factory. State-sponsored social organisations were widespread in the Soviet Union, and used to promote socialist cohesion. Indeed, many of these organisations would also have a sports branch, and it is known that many of FC Pripyat’s players had been workers at Chernobyl NPP – perhaps helping build the constantly expanding facilities of the Nuclear Power Plant. These organised social groups also served as a recruitment pool for Communist Party membership. Becoming a Party member was very far from a simple sign-up : it was instead the result of a rather rigorous selection process, and an achievement reserved for the very few who would demonstrate perfect ideological observance to Party standards, and sustain the close personal scrutiny required to make the mark.
We Could Be Heroes : infusing urban environments with Socialist ideology
As you enter Pripyat through Lenina Prospekt, you reach Kurchatova Vulitsi, the high street that crosses Pripyat from east to west. Igor Kurchatov was a prominent Soviet nuclear scientist, and the father of the Soviet atomic bomb. He was indeed a proclaimed Hero of Socialist Labour, the highest civilian distinction in the Soviet Union, and he received that immense honour three times ! Connecting the nearly parallel Sportyvna and Kurchatova streets down the middle, the Serzhanta Lazarev street is the inner city extension of Lenina Prospekt, connecting Pripyat’s North and South Urban Areas with the city centre. This one is named after Sergeant Yegor Ivanovich Lazarev, a World War 2 Red Army officer. Leading an Engineers Unit, Lazarev participated in the heroic Crossing of the Dnieper in late September 1943. While exposing himself and his men to fierce enemy fire near Chernobyl, they defused hundreds of mines and created one of the earliest bridgeheads across the river Pripyat. Lazarev was killed in the area a fortnight after he pioneered the famous crossing, and was buried in the village of Yaniv, better known today as Pripyat’s Railway Station. For his actions, Lazarev was awarded the status of Hero of the Soviet Union.
Military heroism and unwavering bravery, or outstanding contributions to the advancement of science or industry were idealised in the Soviet Union, and exceptional service was rewarded with the State’s highest honours. People like Lazarev and Kurchatov were regarded as Heros, the living (or deceased) embodiment of socialist archetypes. The Heroes and their families would enjoy immense fame in the Soviet world, along a range of exclusive privileges : A pension, lower rent at higher quality accommodation, medical and entertainment benefits, free transportation and flight tickets, or a luxury car, to name a few. And for Heroes that would achieve the status twice, there was the additional honour of having a bust with commemorative plaque erected in their hometown.
And for those exalted individuals achieving Hero status three times, there was the promise of a bronze bust with a column pedestal in public display in Moscow. Indeed, Kurchatov became Hero of Soviet Labour three times, and being something of a Soviet celebrity, he’s had his statue erected, and also a town, an institute, and even a moon crater and an asteroid named after him. The system encouraged the creation of Heroes, to inspire citizens and propagate Soviet ideals. Afterwards, the Hero narratives are usually related in public spaces, where the state’s expectations for achievement are displayed.
Between the city centre and the lake pier, I encounter Pripyat’s cinema, the Kinoteatr Prometey. Here, I am greeted by yet another hero, albeit a mythical one. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a titan who defies the Gods of Olympus by stealing fire and giving it to mankind, therefore aiding their progression and advancement. Zeus, infuriated by this insolence, condemns Prometheus to an eternal circle of martyrdom : he is chained on a mountain side in Caucasus, and every day, an eagle descends from the skies and eats his liver, which regenerates over night – a grim circle of torment that continues in eternity. Combining the concept of energy with the ideal of personal sacrifice for the collective good, Prometheus becomes the mythical embodiment of key socialist ideals, and another great role model for public display in an atomgrad.
The legend of Prometheus would have been a very popular allegory in the Soviet Union : a story of wealth redistribution, the justifiable appropriation of energy from the powers that be, with the ultimate purpose to help and improve the lives of common people. The ancient paradigm would have resonated positively with the communist world view : a useful tale of ethics that might have been taught in state schools, and suitably promoted in Soviet popular culture, as can be seen in this 1974 animation. It was created by by Alexandra Snezhko-Blotskaya, an animated film director from Ukraine who created a wealth of folklore and allegorical content for public consumption. Young Pioneers would have watched such educative films in movie theatres like Cinema Prometey :
With the mobilisation of both actual and imaginary heroes, the boundary between myth and reality becomes blurred within the socialist ideological universe. Through collective achievement, personal sacrifice and heroic distinction for the State, mortals become legends, often displayed alongside other ideological totems and mythical personas to inspire with their transcendence to another, epic dimension. In a model Soviet city, urban planning and socialist realist art is utilised as the medium to convey these values. Street names and buildings bear names that impress the population, and reinforce the socialist narrative. The urban environment, operative and expressive, communicates communist grandeur and majesty. And so sometimes cities become legendary avatars, the sum of their streets and buildings, their monuments and barricades, and their heroic residents, sometimes real, and sometimes imaginary. We have several such Hero Cities emerging in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War 2, granted awards, medals and monuments for their collective bravery and contribution to the state mythos.
I saw another potential example of how fantastical art is utilised to mix legend and reality. I found myself at the top secret Duga-1 facility, the immense military radar about 12 miles south from Pripyat. Built in 1976 as a top secret early warning radar, the system affectionately known the as “Russian Woodpecker” would have been the very latest in Soviet anti-ballistic missile defence technology. And somewhere inside the immense facility, there’s a strange mural in what might have once been a refectory :
The idea of a Space Elevator, a cable car connecting Earth with space was very much in vogue in the late 1970s. In 1975, members of the global scientific community were in awe of U.S. space scientist Jerome Pearson‘s publications about the feasibility of such a device. Ad in 1979, the famous British sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke publishes Fountains of Paradise , a best-selling, fictional account about the construction of a Space Elevator. Perhaps this publicity could have been enough to influence the creation of the imaginative mural I saw?
But long before Pearson and Clarke popularised space elevators, there was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky , the reclusive Russian scientist whose theories informed much of modern rocketry and space engineering. As a young, inquisitive man of science, Tsiolkovsky was impressed by the space fiction writings of Jules Verne, as well as the construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1887. Through his study of the properties of gas fuels, he understood that the cost of propulsion for a space faring vessel would be huge. This prompted him to develop an early theory of a Space Elevator circa 1895. He imagined an space-faring vessel, which he called a Celestial Castle, tethered on Eiffel Tower by a cable, and using electrical motors, inertia and gravity to provide an inexpensive way to travel from earth to space.
Exciting as this sounds, the truth about what the mural might represent could be much simpler. In 1971, the Soviet Union launched history’s first successful Space Station. Code named Salyut, the space programme aimed to the establishment of a long-duration orbital space station for scientific observation. 3 cosmonauts, Dobrovolsky, Volkov and Patsayev lost their life due to a malfunction returning from one of the first Salyut docking missions in 1971. They were made Heroes of the Soviet Union, and their grand state funeral was much publicised in media at the time. But in reality, the Salyut programme was a front for the parallel development of the so-called Almaz military space station : a veritable Celestial Castle armed with a 23mm cannon (which was test-fired in space in 1975), and to this day, the only known armed space station ever flown. The Salyut was also capable of advanced photographic and radar imagery. Between 1971 and 1981, the Soviet Union launched several space missions as part of the programme. So all this space faring activity would be peaking around the time the Duga-1 radar was built : another top secret installation, aimed to spy and defend against the U.S. So could this mural, with a bit of artistic license, have represented an imaginary Space Elevator? Or was it about the amazing feats, and unquestionable Soviet primacy in Orbital Space Stations at the time? Whatever the answer is, the mural is another great example of how socialist art was used to contextually to exalt and popularise Soviet scientific achievement.
International Friendship and Politics
Next to Cinema Prometei, across the appropriately named Naberezhna (Wharf) street one can find the city’s lake port. In the summer, one might have enjoyed sailing on board a pleasure boat from here. The cafe restaurant sits atop the riverbank overlooking the pier, and there was an open platform and a 360 degree viewing tower allowing guests to take in the natural beauty of the scenery beyond, as well as observe the city of Pripyat. The beautiful stained glass walls would illuminate the interior with colours as rays shine through – and they still do today. The riverside cafe is a beautiful reminder of what would have once been one of the premier leisure spots of Pripyat.
But what is that strange monument just outside the lakeside cafe? Some say it is Soviet abstract art, some others say resembles an ice cream cone. To me, it can only represent one thing : It is Atet, the solar barge of Ra, the Egyptian Sun God.
According to legend, Ra sailed on Atet in an eternal circle, illuminating the skies with bright sunshine in daytime, and then entering the underworld at the night, fighting off beasts and monsters, dying, and being resurrected the next morning to continue his endless journey. The conceptual representation of a boat carrying what seems to be an energy-radiating solar sphere works on many levels in the case of Pripyat. The monument is outside the lakeside cafe across Kinoteatr Prometey, and arguably dedicated to a mythological deity who is fighting, and sacrificing itself each day to deliver energy and warmth to mankind.. is that part of an intentional recurrence of energy related heroic themes?
But why specifically an Egyptian deity, above the plethora of other mythologies of energy? Well, there may be a practical, and also distinctively political explanation for that. In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrows the monarchy, takes control of Egypt, and nationalises the Suez Canal. These actions starting a major political crisis, that culminates in the Western sanctions and military confrontation known as the Suez Crisis.
Despite the brinkmanship of his actions, Nasser is determined and single-minded about his vision of the country’s future, and orchestrates a major political overture toward the Soviet Union. Very soon, Soviet military and financial aid starts pouring into Egypt, culminating in the USSR financing and aiding the construction of the Aswan High Dam, a major hydroelectric project in the Nile between 1960 and 1976. The design of the dam came from the Hydroprojekt Institute , a Soviet firm with great expertise in the design of dams, sluices, canals, and a variety of water and energy related projects, who built over 250 hydroelectric dams in the USSR since the 1930s.
It isn’t surprising that such a major technical company with expertise in major energy projects would also be involved in atomic energy. Indeed, it is recorded that the Hydroprojekt Institute was a key participant in the construction of Chernobyl NPP between 1972 and 1977. Could it be that some of their engineers might have returned from Aswan with legends of Sun Ra and solar divinity? At the least, this major Soviet political and technical achievement in Egypt would have played in contemporary news long enough to inspire an Egyptian themed monument, however abstract it might be, in the city of Pripyat.
But the Hydroprojekt Institute appears to have brought more than their expertise from the lands of Egypt. In a modern version of the curse of the Pharaohs, they appear to have been entrusted with Chernobyl NPP’s hydroelectric design, and in particular the emergency power supply system that allowed the water pumps of the nuclear power plant to continue operating using the inertia of the reactor’s turbine, in case of a power failure. If that doesn’t ring a bell, this is exactly the system that was being tested in Chernobyl on the fateful night of the 24th of April 1986.
Alas ! In most of the world’s mythologies, the Old Gods seldom remain benevolent for long. The inquisitive and defiant human nature often challenges divine temperance, bringing about their wrath. And as the story went, after the vengeful Zeus punishes Prometheus for his betrayal, he directs his fury to mankind by sending Pandora, the first woman to live among mortals. Beautiful but fateful, she is being used by the Gods to compensate for the cosmic imbalance caused by Prometheus’ gift of fire. Gifted with innate curiosity, Pandora becomes the trigger for Zeus’ elaborate revenge. She discovers a mysterious jar unattended, and compellingly opens it. But Zeus has enclosed all evils that exist in the world in this jar. Sickness, misery, and death escape like a swarm of grotesque flying insects as soon as she opens the lid. Therefore, humankind is forever tarnished by these evils, and Zeus’ revenge appears complete.
This is, of course, one final parallel between the catastrophic scale of the Chernobyl disaster and the opening of Pandora’s box. And in the case of Pripyat, a city filled with symbolism and meaning by design, the allegory of biblical destruction makes sense, in an almost metaphysical scale. It is a unique place that represents the high watermark of Socialist expression in the urban landscape, but also reflects the deficiencies, shortcomings and subsequent demise of an entire ideology. In 2006, 20 years after the disaster, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the USSR wrote about how even more than his launch of Perestroika, Chernobyl “… was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later”.